Archive for February, 2007

Injustice review (Iss. 2)

The International Criminal Court alleges that the former interior minister in charge of Darfur organized and funded the Janjaweed, the Arab militia force behind the brutal violence in the region. Ahmed Haroun says he has a clear conscience, according to the BBC, though he and the Janjaweed militia leader are charged with 51 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The problem? Sudan refuses to give up the suspects, claiming that the ICC has no jurisdiction. Here’s what the ICC (founded in 2002 by the UN) says about the kind of cases it deals with:

The Court has a mandate to try individuals rather than States and to hold them accountable for the most serious crimes of concern to the international community – genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and, eventually, the crime of aggression. […]

As set out in the Statute, crimes against humanity include crimes such as the extermination of civilians, enslavement, torture, rape, forced pregnancy, persecution on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious or gender grounds, and enforced disappearances – but only when they are part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population.

While I’m usually predisposed towards governments handling their own criminals, given the nature and scale of the violence in the region, I’d say it’s about time for the ICC to step in.

Update on an issue I previously blogged about – seven men in Kashmir have been charged with murdering an innocent man and disguising his death as the outcome of a faked gun battle (BBC):

The officers are suspected of falsely claiming that the man they had killed was a Pakistani militant, which made them eligible to receive handsome cash rewards from the government.

This is a good start, but last time I remember, authorities suspected more than five of these types of killings – all of these should be investigated, and those responsible should be held to their actions.

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Tips from the author of ‘Around the Bloc’

The author of Around the Bloc, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, made an appearance at UW-Madison today to offer an essential piece of information for people whose feet itch with wanderlust – how to travel on somebody else’s dollar.

I first read Griest’s memoir about traveling to Russia, China and Cuba before embarking on my own journey to South Korea. Her story is enrapturing and personal – Griest offers an honest introspective to the emotions and fears of a traveler, as well as striking observations of people and places she encounters. She blatantly challenges the Cold War-concieved images of communist nations that many Americans still hold, and motivates the reader to go and see for themselves. Needless to say, her story was an inspiration to me as a fledgling traveler three years ago when the book was released.

Today, Griest hit several main points on how to travel the world “on someone else’s budget.” Her central lesson? Never let money stand in the way of your travel aspirations.

She gave the anecdote of when she wanted to attend a journalism conference in Washinton D.C. but didn’t have airfare money – undeterred, she started investigating, asking the question, “Who would want me to go to a journalism conference?” She found her answer in local journalists, a group of lawyers, and a Mexican-American foundation, and off she went to a life-changing experience (You’ll have to read the book).

Griest urged students and young travelers to ask the same question she did, and to pursue scholarships – just to name a few, the Henry Luce Scholarship, Fulbright Scholarship, and the Rhodes Scholarship. She also recommended being what she calls a “grammar gypsy,” traveling to different nations working for English-language newspapers or teaching English. Other options she named were programs like Backpack Nation or WorldTrek. Griest encouraged students never to think, “Oh, I won’t get the grant,” and not apply. Let them do the rejecting, she said, not you.

Griest is bubbly and energetic, and describes herself as the kind of person who wants to get her funky jewelry from its country of origin. Her passion for travel seems to stem as much from a desire to really help people as it does from wanderlust and the need to experience other cultures. Meeting her was a pleasure, and another boost to my already overwhelming urge to hit the road.

Can we listen anymore?

The distinction between listening and waiting for your chance to talk is a critical one to make. As our lives become increasingly harried with a multitude of media and tasks demanding our attention, wading through the maddening flow of our own emotions and identity, it is at times difficult to know which we’re actually doing.

I’ll risk sounding like a horrible person and admit that I notice myself most obviously slipping between the two during conversations with my grandfather – our dialogue is pretty organized, as little changes in his life, and the changes in my life deal mostly with people he’s never met. We disagree on politics and religion, so we steer clear of those topics. We talk about the weather a lot, and about going out to eat. All of this is fine, but is there really any value to a scripted discussion?

The implication of having a dialogue where nobody really listens reaches far beyond superficial weekly phone calls to relatives. Political figureheads and pundits ramble on and twist words, refusing to answer questions that aren’t on their agenda. University students with separate ideologies can barely converse, discussion on beliefs dissintigrating into diatribe because nobody’s listening. Trade discussions hit walls, with one side refusing to step into the other’s shoes. World leaders refuse to listen to their own people, and lash out angrily with little consideration for context or consequences.

So where are we headed? Are we soon to become a society with earmuffs on, shouting at the top of our lungs? Or are we going to take a breath, look people in the eye, and perhaps give a little time to try and see it the other person’s way?

Today, I broke out of my mold a bit – I talked with my grandfather about the pace of life, and the stress of watching it slip away so fast. We talked about the importance of finding someone special to spend time with. We shared a moment of unspoken sadness, as he told me that he still visits the cemetary every day.

The script was gone, and we were just two people talking.

A New York Summer Bicycle Dream

Sticky, warm, sun doused summer morning
Standing outside a bagel shop just south of Houston
The city churns in all boroughs
But it’s quiet on this street

Coffee meets lips through a plastic lid intermediary
Tongue curls, back away from steam
Caffeine shaking sleepy synapses
And the day’s plans unfurl in imagination

My leg, wrapped in tight cuffed denim
Swings over the top tube of my single-speed steed
Slip my foot into the clips
And sweetly push the pedal

Rubber silently caresses avenue
Then WOOSH! Flying forth into the arterial fray
Denying the authority of brake lights
My pounding cadence hustles towards oblivion

Uptown, sidewinding skids through St. Mark’s
Survival is based on ultimate attention, meditation
Floating between yellow machines bent on destruction
The colors of human life are a blur on the sidewalk

Inhaling the thickness of the city
The rush of my own blood and breath
Flying in the beautiful madness
Sweaty jeans on a bike seat

Skff! Skff! Skff!
Cranks come to a stop
Skidmarks
Shake shack?

by ben h.

The Anti-aviators

UK-based activist group “Plane Stupid” not only thinks that aviation is “mostly uneccessary,” but that hopping on a plane is “one of the most irresponsible things” someone could do, environmentally speaking (source: this month’s adbusters). As an avid traveler, I’m inclined to disagree.

Before I get railed for being anti-environment, allow me to explain – anyone who has read my blog for even a few posts knows that when it comes to environmental issues, I lean way left. I won’t deny that air travel has a significantly detrimental affect on our air; but before we start attacking a mode of transport that has no reasonable alternative, why don’t we go after one that does? Focusing on grounding airplanes when our cities are choking with auto exhaust seems hugely misguided. Let’s get people out of cars and onto bikes before we start trying to pull them out of the air.

The Plane Stupid movement ingores the socially beneficial aspects of air travel. While autos and the urban sprawl that makes them necessary disconnect communities, airplanes bring people and worlds together. I’ll agree with PS’s argument that many intra-Euro flights could be replaced with train rides, but overall, our planet is a big place.

Unless we’re prepared to revert to trans-atlantic boat rides, the plane is here to stay – and for the better, I think. When air travel was expensive and infrequent, people knew less about the world, they had less opportunities to experience other cultures. Travelling abroad allows us to turn everything we know on its head, and become more cosmopolitan citizens. Cheap air travel allows more people to share in this overwhelmingly positive experience.

While Plane Stupid would discount my assertion about “cheap” air travel and counter that air travel only benefits the rich, I would point them to dedicated travelers who scrape at shitty jobs just to save enough for that month living in a foreign country on a shoestring (check all the bloggers at bootsnall.com). PS might also point to other “problematic” aspects of air travel:

The World Health Organisation has expressed concern about the impact of aviation on human health. Long term (5-30 years) exposure to air traffic noise levels averaging 65 to 75 decibels can increase blood pressure levels and the risk of hypertension. Sleep disturbance can lead to fatigue, hypertension, greater risk of heart and respiratory problems, poor concentration in work and school, increased risk of accidents, depression, anxiety and higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse (Greenskies). [plane stupid: reasons]

Sorry guys, don’t buy it – I grew up in the flight path of an international airport. No high blood pressure, I just learned to love the sight of contrails.

Vietnam, South Korea and the Marriage Industry

More South Korean men are hopping over to Vietnam as a last resort to find wives, according to a New York Times article that ran today. The arrangement seems rather crude – marriage brokers bring a few bachelors to a room under the cover of night (though the practice is apparently legal), where a group of young, single Vietnamese women wait and answer questions. Then the men decide, choosing their life partners within a couple of hours.

These women aren’t totally without agency; in the case followed by NYT reporter Norimitsu Onishi, one woman turned down a South Korean man’s request for marriage. Another asked whether her suitor promised to love her and take care of her – things one would normally consider in deciding whether to marry. But the whole arrangement seems to be based on the idea of a kind of traded service – the men, who for one reason or another are unable to find Korean wives, find a partner, and women in poorer areas of Vietnam with little opportunities are given the chance to live in a more developed nation.

This situation brings out a whole slew of ethical questions – the biggest of which is, “Are women in less developed countries becoming a commodity?” While there’s no way to objectively judge the quality of a relationship between two people, there are other keys that might point to an answer. The Korea Times ran an article back in 2006 about ads used by marriage agencies to “sell” Vietnamese women:

The marriage agency has a banner hanging on the side of its building that reads “Vietnam Ladies for Marriage,’’ and often sprays leaflets on the streets below riddled with words such as “Vietnam Ladies, Satisfaction Guaranteed,’’ “Vietnam Ladies for Remarriage, Farmers and Disabled People’’ and “Vietnam Girls Don’t Run Away,’’ among other lines.

There’s no debating that such language objectifies and dehumanizes these women to a shocking degree, and there have been reactions against those kinds of perceptions. But other aspects of this practice are problematic as well – according to the New York Times article, age gaps between spouses can exceed 20 years or more, and often the previous perceptions that these married-off women have of their new home are based upon television portrayals. One has to wonder if these women are really going to be happy.

But perhaps the biggest question is, why are these men seeking brides outside of their own country at all? Onishi explains that the introduction of pregnancy screening to South Korea has resulted in a disproportianate number of males (implying that female fetuses have been aborted, a problem that has been seen with China’s one-child law). Onishi also explains a more social reason for this phenomenon:

What is more, South Korea’s growing wealth has increased women’s educational and employment opportunities, even as it has led to rising divorce rates and plummeting birthrates.

So what’s happening here? Are educated women becoming picky or disinterested in marriage? Or is the educated South Korean female (perhaps more independent?) falling out of favor with South Korean men? Onishi points out that as the nations where these brides are coming from develop, young women will have less incentive to leave through arranged marriages. Perhaps there needs to be a clearer dialogue about gender in South Korea, or there’s soon going to be a lot of lonely men.

Media Oppression in Somalia

News media outlets in Somalia have been ordered to stop reporting on the violence in Mogadishu, as the interim government there wrestles for control:

The interim government of Somalia has ordered the three main local media organisations operating in the capital to stop reporting on military operations and the displacement of civilians.

The deputy head of the National Security Agency, General Nur Muhammad Mahamud, told HornAfrik radio, Benadir radio and the Shabelle Media Network that as Somalia was under martial law, the media was not allowed to report freely.

He said that if the media groups continued to report on the violence, they would be shut down.

But a manager at HornAfrik told the BBC that his radio station would not be intimidated by the interim government and that it was continuing to broadcast reports of the ongoing violence in Mogadishu. [BBC]

More power to HornAfrik. Society needs a watchdog to function, especially in such times of turmoil. Their website, which includes a live radio link along with (slightly out-of-date) reports in English, is here.


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